Johann Sebastian Bach - Keyboard Pieces performed by Víkingur Ólafsson
Johann Sebastian Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach (keyboard pieces and arrangements). Víkingur Ólafsson, piano. DG, (p) 2018; Time: 78:00; Rating: (5/5).
Last year I enjoyed discovering Ólafsson through his DG release of music by Philip Glass. In many ways I felt he gave Glass’s music an interpretation it deserved, becoming a better expression for the music than the composer’s own performances yielded on disc.
In this release of music by Bach, Ólafsson chooses “favorites” by Bach, some straight pieces for the harpsichord, but also arrangements, such as the Chorale Prelude BWV 734, or the Gavotte from violin partita 3, BWV 1006. Each work is seemingly considered on its own, each one inhabiting its own sound world in Ólafsson’s hands. I have to put my “historically informed” sensibility off to the side, but doing so opens up significant delight.
Around the time I was born, Fredrich Gulda recorded Bach’s WTC I/II which is my favorite recording of the 48. And it’s Gulda’s treatment of each pair of preludes and fugues as their own world, for which he tuned his articulation, chose his tempo, and made them special, that comes to mind when listening to this newer album. While Gulda’s recording was closely recorded, with the microphones positioned directly over the strings, Ólafsson’s recording evokes even more colors and of course benefits from more modern recording technology. The sound is pristine and clear, revealing a superb instrument and all the nuances applied to the music.
The short attack of a harpsichord is somewhat imitated in the reading of the 15th invention, BWV 786. Ólafsson takes advantage of the piano’s ability to combine these short notes with longer ones in dynamic contrast to extend the rhythmic patterns. He maintains the sharp attack with space in the reading of the first movement of the Bach arrangement of a Marcello concerto for keyboard, BWV 974. The middle movement takes great advantage of the piano’s ability to sustain. The final movement is more connected, but the change in attack from the first movement is forgiven as we marvel at Ólafsson’s technical confidence.
The most amazing performance from Ólafsson comes in the second track, a furiously fast rendition of the organ chorale, Nun freut euch, liben Christen g’mein, BWV 734. The soft but frenetic outer parts almost stupefy as the chorale melody is punctuated at a slower rhythmic pace, all dynamically separated. The technique required for this piece is amazing, as is the musical result.
Ólafsson includes several selections from the WTC, the inventions and sinfonias, and the Aria variata in stilo italiano BWV 989. This piece is not nearly as well known as Bach’s Goldberg Variations but is another exercise in theme and variations. Unlike the Goldbergs, this set of ten variations is based on the melody, rather than the bass line. Ólafsson’s account is virtuosic, taking full advantage of the piano’s dynamic powers. His rhythmic stresses propel the music and add aesthetic interest. The same level of confidence is present, especially so in the seventh variation which he controls dynamically to make way for the even more extrovert eighth variation. In a piece such as this, it’s clear he’s not thinking of each variation as its own mini-piece, but is also considering the work’s overall structure.
Ólafsson connects the two pieces in the pairing of Bach’s B minor 3- an 2-part inventions: BWV 801 and 786. Combined this way, perhaps akin to two Scarlatti sonatas back to back, the short pieces share the same key but are very different themes. His choice of tempo, articulation, and articulation help bind the pieces together.
One of my favorite Bach discoveries over the past ten years is the chorale prelude Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 659. Here Ólafsson adopts an almost liquid sound, more sustained than an organ, to present this rich piece, doubling the left hand in parts to support the harmonic foundation.
The late Glenn Gould had an impeccable technique. Applied to the extremes, it helped us all see that Bach’s music was so profound it could survive the stress of speed and great variation in articulation. With Ólafsson, he combines what I perceive as a world class technique with the sensitivity, style, and musical direction that elevates technique. He pushes the instrument to do things that would have been impossible with the keyboard in Bach’s time; instead of robbing anything from the music, he uses these techniques to elevate the music.
This is a profoundly rewarding disc. Recommended.